2017 was another very special year at the movies for yours truly – especially with getting to attend TIFF for the first time, this was a “before and after” year if I ever had one. As the world finds new ways to be unbearable, filmmakers haven’t been a stronghold for reflecting that awfulness while reaffirming our human resolve. I can’t remember a year where a film’s compassion could be felt so acutely. As ever, the movies were both an escape and a mirror. The running themes in the year’s best films are the terrible times we live in writ large and a reactionary, hard-won empathy, as if the movies were speaking to one another – a salve for the burns, or kindred spirits in tearing things down to build them back up again. How can one say that it’s a downer for the movies when they count for more these days?
And yet the complaints persist that the year was a disappointment. If you argue that this was an underwhelming year for film, the counterpoint remains to simply see more movies. From the inescapability of Star Wars – The Last Jedi taking massive creative risks to delights under the radar like Princess Cyd, the rewards are everywhere whether you actively seek them out or you can’t seem to avoid them. Even Netflix has made some of the year’s best accessible to so many, even if it has blurred the lines of the TV vs. film divide.
Missing among my list below that were the most difficult to omit: the potency of Mudbound‘s character insight, the blasé gutsiness of Staying Vertical, the soul of A Fantastic Woman, the cozy/prickly ambition of Okja, and The Post‘s timely righteousness. Major players of the year that I have regrettably missed at this time include Phantom Thread, Loveless, The Breadwinner, and Félicité. Onto the top 15 films of the year…
15. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
This film’s unceremonious, all-too-brief release was one of the cinema’s greatest sins this year. What audiences missed was a delicate and curious examination of the triad relationship between Wonder Woman creator William Marston and the women that inspired him, and one of the year’s most unique queer stories. With a refreshingly level-headed dose of sexuality and the ever charismatic Rebecca Hall, consider this your first piece of movie homework for 2018.
14. The Shape of Water
“The way he looks at me… he doesn’t know how I am incomplete.” Guillermo Del Toro’s Sirkian genre meld is a love story for the lonely, one that’s more about feeling seen than the romance it depicts. It’s a swing for the fences for the director more meaningful for what it does well than what it supposedly lacks – just like how Eliza feels loved by her fish man. In delivering his strangest film, Del Toro gives us the full spectrum of his fascinations with his heart on his sleeve. “You’ll never know… [cue weeping]”
13. Get Out
A major part of how Get Out keeps hold of the full breadth of the hell of today is its ability to be many things at once: fearless comedy, inventive horror, and atom bomb to genre tropes. Its uncompromising look at racism within white liberal types is what hooked the masses, but what lingers is the morbid visual imagination Jordan Peele injects that reveals the rotten flesh under the white American post-racial facade. Repeat viewings reward with odder and more heartbreaking details, like Daniel Kaluuya’s back-broken hero.
12. The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola pushes the boundaries of her ongoing study of pensive young white women with The Beguiled‘s moral complexity, a more challenging iteration than Don Siegel’s original. Just as the Civil War looms outside of this forgotten girls’ school, the dark history they certainly had on this southern plantation is just outside the frame and their minds. Against the emotional manipulations of a wounded Union soldier on the right side of history, Coppola subtly plants land mines for our allegiances are makes the audience reconcile their unspoken past.
11. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Noah Baumbach returned to his family history for inspiration here and came up with his most moving film without losing the rapid-fire hilarity of his recent farces. Bolstered by Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler delivering some of their best work, its biggest feat is believably presenting the familial displacement and complicated affection of step/half/whatever siblings. The film’s slow quaking blend of grief, regret, and resentment sinks in and is tough to shake, but so is its compassion and gnawing reconciliation.
Julia Ducournau’s debut film about a vegetarian veterinary student’s increasing appetite for flesh amid hazing rituals and a tempestuous relationship with her older sister is a nasty piece of work. But underneath the litany of disgusting (and yes, hilarious) bits of cannibalistic gore is a surprisingly tender look at being a young woman and the exclusionary cycle of abuse of various social strata. Raw has more literal and figurative guts than any film this year, delivering casual profundity in a harrowingly fun ride.
9. Beatriz At Dinner
Screenwriter Mike White cut to the core to white entitlement and privilege this year with the holistic Brad’s Status and this more bruised film, a reunion with director Miguel Arteta. Salma Hayek’s plays unwilling dinner party crasher Beatriz, a beleaguered optimist and healer slowly unraveled by her increasingly affronting capitalist hosts and fellow guests. The pull to relent to the dismissive, cruel ways of the world is its own consuming undertow and even Beatriz’s resolve has its limits. It’s dead-serious satire about ethical despair but also gut-seizingly humane.
8. Faces Places
While Beatriz urges the audience to “try healing something”, Faces Places essentially attempts only that. This compassionate documentary is filled with moments micro and macro with the power to restore your faith in humanity, and each is given added urgency through the lens of octogenarian creator Agnès Varda’s self-aware mortality. Paired with her adoring collaborator JR, the two turn Faces Places into a larger statement on the power of human connection. I mean honestly, Agnès and JR were the screen couple of the year and a testament to the romance of friendship.
7. Call Me By Your Name
At this point, we all just need to embrace Luca Guadagnino as one of our foremost sensualists. Here his rock-and-roll bent is paired with the stifled emotions of James Ivory for one heavenly pairing of instincts both complimentary and unexpected – CMBYN feels like the utter embodiment of both of their gifts. It’s a gay Room with a View set to the 80s new wave, about all the things we cannot say and the euphoria when we actually dare do so. As Michael Stuhlbarg’s heartbreakingly kind father notes, it’s about feeling fearlessly – and Guadagnino gives you all the aches of revelatory first love.
6. Personal Shopper
As strange and unplaceable a meditation on grief as grief itself often proves to be, Personal Shopper is another difficult-to-categorize masterstroke from Olivier Assayas. And just like grief, the film constantly morphs and redefines itself all while being a consuming, devastating experience. Light despite subjects of mortality, technology, sex, art, fashion, and depression – the thrill is how elegantly Assayas weaves them together into one cohesive whole. Kristen Stewart delivers a surprisingly kinetic depiction of depression – with this performance, she’s the heir to Gena Rowlands or Nicole Kidman.
5. The Florida Project
“You know why this is my favorite tree? Cause it’s tipped over and it’s still growing.” Sean Baker continues to build a reputation as empathetic chronicler of the forgotten citizen with his latest, a duet of a daughter with an indefatigable spirit and a mother with the walls closing in on her. A study on American homelessness in the shadow of Disney World with stylistic inspiration from The Little Rascals, the film is balanced perfectly between sober reality and optimistic spirit. At the end of the economic food chain where our culture is afraid to look for too long, Baker reveals grace and heart and challenges society’s indifference.
4. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Meanwhile Yorgos Lanthimos shows us a literal beating heart, lulling us into grotesquery just as the social norms he condemns make us accept any number of bizarre behaviors. Here he presents the nuclear unit as having lost all of its meaning, just as the body becomes disassociated from the soul. Sacred Deer is Greek theatre and American tragedy, revealing an affluent suburban culture that will stick to its archetypes even if it kills them. And like the best horror (and horror adjacent) films of the year, it’s really fucking funny.
3. BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Robin Campillo’s look at the Act Up Paris movement in the height of the AIDS epidemic exists on the every fathomable level: the social, the personal, the molecular, and all of the mess in between. Equally considered and all encompassing, it shies from nothing in how it depicts our capacity to fight without compromise, debate viciously, fuck hungrily, and die unceremoniously. Campillo plops us right into the thick of the moment, demanding our involvement while embracing the transience of human connections. Rarely do films feel so urgently alive or welcoming to the prickliest parts of our behavior.
A righteous Biblical allegory about the havoc we wreak on our planet (as I’m sure you’ve heard and heard again), damning not just the aggressive acts but the mindset behind them. Darren Aronofsky deserves more credit for crafting something with climate change on its mind that takes an approach outside of the usual methods of catasrophic data or granola spiritualism. Still, I find myself more enthralled with its more elemental human themes: the toll of violence, destructive cycles destined to repeat themselves, our inability to escape it all no matter how much we close ourselves off. There’s also room for further ideas on introversion, abuse cycles, and innocent bystanders of artistic sacrifice. No matter the entry point, mother! shows that hell is other people.
1. Lady Bird
“Dad, this is more for Mom.” Greta Gerwig’s comedic masterpiece contains multitudes in the tiniest details, rendered all with an obvious affection and curiosity for all of its moving parts. Crucially, the film begins with a question and ends with a thank you – it’s more than a coming of age story, it’s about the process of gratitude. Gerwig constructs the film like memory in a way that’s easy to place ourselves into its hero’s shoes (really, any character’s shoes, for the film thinks all of its folk are heroes), we remember pieces and snippets of a longer narrative, only to later gild them with meaning thanks to time and distance. It’s inspired umpteen “call your mother” pieces, but it’s also a “call your old friend” film and a “forget your stupid ex” film. And a “forgive yourself” film.
Onto 2018. Happy New Year!